Woodstock: A work in progress?

Artist uproar as gentrification in the Woodstock Industrial Centre has threatened the suburb's 'run-down' factory atmosphere.

An evening of misty rain is not typical of the otherwise oven-like month of February in Cape Town, but it matched the mood of A Word of Art’s last blast in the Woodstock Industrial Centre as it is now configured. The trademark flash mob bursting the building at its seams and the youthful elixir of invincibility had evaporated.

Established in 2009, A Word of Art has transformed itself under the leadership of Ricky Lee Gordon from an artist management outfit to an agency for art activism with live-in studios and a gallery. The gallery and most of the studios are being ­relocated during renovations. The gallery will be reopened in April and the studios in a different part of the building in July.

Although, strictly speaking, it was not the last blast—the party was even called “It’s not over”—the graffiti-lined corridors, already showing the licks of whitewash, and the guests, including a who’s who of the local creative class, gave it the feeling of a memorial service. Everyone knew it would never be the same again. Some of the resident artists had been evicted and the word was out that the entire tenant list was being reviewed.

The building was bought in December by Indigo Properties, which is redeveloping it. The company was behind the well-known Biscuit Mill development, also in Woodstock’s Albert Road. The change in ownership of the Woodstock Industrial Centre has already led to evictions from what had become probably the largest conglomerate of artist and designer studios in Cape Town—more than 75 at its peak.

Tenants told to vacate their live-in studios
Kathryn Smith, Christian Nerf, Love and Hate Studio, Senyol, Justin Southey and Gordon himself were given a month’s notice to vacate their live-in studios. Most of the other tenants who rented studios have been given the option of staying on with a 10% increase in rent.

Senyol, an illustrator widely recognised for his abstract street-art style, said he could not understand how the tenant list could be reviewed without prior notice, or even why the owners did not let the tenants know that the front of the building would be repainted.

There has been a widespread uproar on Facebook about the eviction of the Golden Plate Take Aways, a corner café that has been there for more than 50 years. More than 50 people voiced their outrage in response to a post on January 27 by Kent Lingevelt, a custom skateboard designer, who until last month had been a tenant there for seven years.

Responding on behalf of the Indigo Group, Nick Ferguson said: “Golden Plate has been in the property for a long period of time but, from my point of view, has become lethargic and don’t add any value to the building or the area.”

He added that Golden Plate did not contribute to the “face” of the building, had a large outstanding debt with the previous landlords and had a major kitchen-hygiene problem. Furthermore, contrary to the rumours, the owners of Golden Plate were offered an alternative venue in the building for a kiosk.

“If it [Woodstock] is being gentrified now, it’s all normal. It’s not a clandestine plot against poorer people, just natural economics that value can be created from neglected properties in good areas. It’s a positive thing that there is investment and improvements, or else we would spiral into a slum,” Ferguson said.

Gentrification is a ‘natural market response’
Independent researcher Andrew Fleming agreed that gentrification was a “natural market response” and said house prices had been increasing in Woodstock since the late 1980s. He said the proper definition of gentrification was linked to property prices and not the trendy coffee shops that many liked to associate with the word.

Fleming’s master’s degree at the London School of Economics in 2011, on the changes in the suburb, was titled “Making a place for the rich? Urban poor, evictions and gentrification in Woodstock, South Africa”. The African centre for cities at the University of Cape Town will publish it later this year.

“At what point does intervention need to happen to ensure that lower-income people can still live there?” he asked. Fleming said the historical significance of Woodstock was that it was the only inner-city suburb that was not developed after the forced evictions during apartheid.

He said informal renting contracts and a lack of awareness of how the Constitution protected residents made them vulnerable and President Jacob Zuma’s new housing policy needed to take the special circumstances of suburbs such as Woodstock into consideration.

“Making places like Woodstock affordable can undo the apartheid geography that divides Cape Town,” Fleming said.

However, with regard to commercial cases such as the Woodstock Industrial Centre and other “fortress-like” commercial and office developments that were being built in Woodstock, they drew in people who did not participate in the surrounding community. “Look at the way the Biscuit Mill has been designed. It’s very exclusionary with a huge fence around it and access control. The businesses are not owned by people from Woodstock and the goods that are sold are rarely from Woodstock. It’s certainly not a ‘neighbourhood’ goods market,” he said.

“If you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll find that most high-end shoppers don’t want an integrated market. They just like the idea of shopping in Woodstock and being leftie-liberal.”

Ferguson was also sceptical about how far Capetonians’ liberalism went: “This Facebook protest is a handful of people who have probably never been to the Golden Plate.”

What about the creative gentrification? And what will happen to the artists? Many are angry and leaving, but some are regrouping in the nearby Side Street Studios, owned by Elad Kirschenbaum, who sold the Woodstock Industrial Centre.

But the majority, about 50 of the tenants, are staying.

However, the greatest loss will be the run-down factory atmosphere that invited an anarchistic mood of infinite possibility—the winding, maze-like corridors that were, for a moment, below the radar of the arts establishment.

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